[Relevant document: European Union document No. SEC(2010)473: Statement of Estimates of the European Commission for the financial year 2011 (Preparation of the 2011 Draft Budget).]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. SEC(2010) 473, Statement of Estimates of the European Commission for the financial year 2011; and supports the Government’s efforts to maintain the 2011 EU budget at the cash levels equivalent to the 2010 budget, while ensuring better value for money in EU expenditure.
I very much welcome the fact that this debate is taking place in this Chamber for the first time in several years. The debate demonstrates the importance that the House attaches to scrutiny of the EU budget, to the UK’s contribution to it, and to the value for money of EU expenditure.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She says that this debate demonstrates the importance that the Government attach to giving the House a say. Can she tell us whether a vote on the matter, either way, would make the slightest bit of difference?
The hon. Lady is assuming that those Members who have tabled amendments will press them to a vote. Perhaps she is prejudging the outcome of the debate. We welcome the debate because, tomorrow, I shall be in Brussels pressing our case in respect of the European Union budget, and it is vital that we are able to say that we have scrutinised the document thoroughly in our European Parliament.
In regard to the European Union, matters such as the single market, enlargement and environmental standards have seen real progress, but the EU budget does not have pride of place among the EU’s achievements. I will not hide from the House the Government’s frustration that some of our partners—and those in EU institutions—do not seem to understand how bizarre it is, when national budgets are under such extraordinary pressure, that the EU should be immune from that. So here in the UK, the week before a very tough spending review, it is only right that we should subject the EU’s budget for 2011 to the same level of scrutiny as our own national accounts.
As I said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), I will be in Brussels tomorrow, holding discussions with Commissioner Semeta, the Belgian presidency and MEPs on this very subject, pressing them to take the close, objective, pragmatic and responsible look at the EU budget that is long overdue, just as we are doing in the House today. I will, of course, come later to the previous Government’s giveaway of the rebate, which is one of the main reasons why we will see our contributions rising over coming years, but let me begin by summarising this Government’s approach to the Commission’s EU budget proposals.
At the beginning of the debate, let me also clarify our response to the amendments: I absolutely agree with the sentiments of both. Amendment (a) was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the time, effort and work he has put into scrutinising not just the EU budget but a whole range of areas in which the EU has become involved. His persistence has certainly paid dividends in ensuring that this matter has maintained the prominence in the UK Parliament that it absolutely deserves.
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady has said, particularly about the splendid work done by the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am also a member. The Government now have the power to do something about the budget. Having complained about it for so long—I agree with those sentiments—is it not time for the Government to say no to the European Union on these matters?
In fact, we are doing just that. I will come on to more detail about what we are doing now and what we plan to do, clarifying the arguments that we are putting to the European Commission.
Let me be clear that the Government will support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. We very much welcome the pressure applied to the European Parliament to reject the proposed rise. We will do our bit as Ministers and as a Government to put pressure on that Parliament, and particularly on our MEPs, to reject any proposed rise. When the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) makes her speech following mine, I very much hope that she will confirm that the Opposition will press their MEPs to oppose any rises in the EU budget. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Stone will want to press her further on that.
Amendment (b) was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) who, despite spending less time in this House than my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, has also clearly established his role as one of those MPs who scrutinises all EU matters carefully in a way that adds quality to our debates. I want to make it clear to him that we absolutely agree with the sentiments behind his amendment. We want to see the 2011 budget cut. The problem with the amendment is that if we withdrew our money from the EU, under its terms that would be illegal. We cannot support an amendment that would make our action illegal, so we will have to reject it, but I can tell my hon. Friend that if he had worded the provision slightly differently, we might well have been able to support both amendments. It is with regret that we have to reject his amendment, despite agreeing with its sentiments.
Let us talk about our concerns over the EU budget. It is not just the size of the draft EU budget but its effectiveness that is an important matter of concern.
Many aspects of the EU budget are, of course, deeply pernicious. Does the Minister agree that a particular shocker is the fact that the original budget had written into its baseline a 4.4% increase in administration costs alone? It would be utterly appalling if we found increases in administration budgets taking place at a time when economies are having to be found right across Europe. What proposals do the Government have to get that increase down substantially? Will we be able to make a saving and secure a reduction in administration budgets as a result of the negotiations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is shocking and untenable for the EU to propose a 4.4% rise in heading 5 administration at a time when countries across the EU are struggling with extremely difficult and challenging fiscal deficit reduction plans. We have already voted against that rise and we will continue to take the opportunity to vote against it. More than that, I will explain what we are doing to ensure that the next time we have the chance to vote against it in Council, rather than have a minority of countries with us that is just short of a blocking minority, we can actually achieve a majority and make a difference.
If we look at the size of the EU budget, we see that there is a marked disparity between the Commission’s proposed budget increase and the substantial reductions in public spending that countries across the EU are having to make. The Governments of, among others, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and Romania, as well as our own, have all announced sizeable austerity measures¸ and the EU as a whole has taken unprecedented action to secure economic stability. Yet the Commission has proposed that the EU budget should increase by nearly 6% in 2011. The Commission’s draft budget explains that the proposed increase is driven primarily by pre-planned rises in the financial framework, and by large spending programmes such as the research framework programme. As we have heard, however, it is impossible to ignore other elements, such as the startling 4.4% increase in the cost of running the EU institutions themselves.
I think all Members are aware that, arguably, the level of the EU annual budget is to some extent already determined by the overall financial framework, but the Government firmly believe that 2011 cannot be a “business as usual” year for the EU budget. That is simply no longer tenable. As a result of the global financial crisis, Governments across the EU have had to reassess their spending plans, and the EU budget should not be immune to the same pressures. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been very clear about that. We are committed to securing a cut in the 2011 budget. Indeed, at a meeting of EU Finance Ministers on 18 May, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor proposed a freeze in the budget at 2010 levels. He said:
“I put to Ecofin that there should be a cash freeze in the budget. It is not acceptable to have an increase in the budget.”
That was in marked contrast to the previous Government’s approach, which saw year-on-year rises effectively unchallenged, and, most damagingly, saw Britain lose part of our valuable rebate—a rebate that had been won by a Conservative Government. This is not strictly within the scope of today’s debate, but as we turn our attention later to the next financial framework, we will do so with our UK contribution rising purely as a result of the previous Government’s catastrophic decision to give away part of our rebate. That amounts to a £2 billion a year hit for taxpayers—£10 billion over the course of a Parliament—and for what? A reform of the common agricultural policy that has simply never taken place.
That is the sort of argument that I have been presenting to other European countries, including the French Minister who was in London a few weeks ago. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is simply untenable for the EU budget to remain unchallenged when across Europe we are making incredibly difficult decisions on our national budgets. The way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his argument is exactly the same as the way in which I have been pitching ours to our European partners. We are hopeful that, over time, there will continue to be a growing sense among them that we do indeed need to start challenging the European budget that is currently proposed.
My hon. Friend is presenting a powerful argument to encourage us to support her. Does she accept that all the Members who have put their names to the amendments, however they vote tonight, are helping her and her colleagues in Europe by demonstrating the strength of feeling and the anger that exist throughout the House?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the reasons why I welcome tonight’s debate. I believe that it underlines the concern that we feel, not just as a Government but as a Parliament. The value that we can gain from the debate is our ability to show that we are united as a Parliament in standing up to the rise in 2011, and in wanting to see it cut.
The Chancellor, Ministers and officials have been working with member states, the Commission and the European Parliament to make our case. As members of the European Scrutiny Committee will know, at a time of fiscal consolidation the EU simply cannot afford to budget for more than it can realistically spend. Therefore, we have also maintained a firm focus on realistic implementation rates, because implementation of the EU budget has long been a cause of concern with a combined surplus and underspend in 2009 of almost €5 billion.
As I have said, the Government will focus not only on the size of the EU budget. We also want to focus on its priorities for spending, because it is clear that certain areas of the EU budget simply do not offer the best possible value for money that we should be able to expect. The common agricultural policy, citizenship spending in some areas and spending on the EU’s own administration are foremost among them. There is also, of course, the perennial question of why the EU is based in both Brussels and Strasbourg. Critically, we want an EU budget that prioritises economic growth and recovery across the EU and worldwide, just as we are doing with our fiscal consolidation measures here in the UK. We want a budget that is focused on prioritising poverty reduction, promoting stability and addressing the challenges of climate change. The Government will therefore work to ensure that funding for activities is focused on areas that offer the best value for money and that offer the best deal for the British taxpayer.
I have no doubt that other Members will refer to that in their contributions. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, we did not support the setting up of the European External Action Service, but as it is now in place our aim is to ensure that it does not duplicate in the way that he says, and that instead it has a role that has some value. We have been concerned about the increased budget because when the EEAS was set up, a key aspect of the conditions was that there would be fiscal neutrality and that is already being challenged. That is one reason why we have been pressing for that to be explicitly put into the terms of the EEAS remit. We have been successful in that, and we are pressing Cathy Ashton to make 10% savings immediately. Discussions on this are continuing in the EU right now. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, therefore.
To make a broader point on the EU budget, it is vital that decisions taken on budgeting are stuck to. There is an underlying problem that I talked about in respect of implementation: in too many projects there is a gap between what has been budgeted for and what ends up being spent. It is quite a basic financial management problem, but it needs to be addressed.
Turning to the background to today’s debate and what has happened so far, in August the Council adopted its first reading position on the Commission’s draft budget. We should bear in mind that this draft budget proposed an increase of 6% in the 2011 budget. That first reading position saw the Council reduce the budget level proposed by the Commission by €788 million in commitment appropriations and by just over €3.5 billion in payment appropriations. However, although the Council reduced the payment levels in the Commission’s proposal, the reductions would still have meant an increase of almost 3% in EU budget spending from 2010 to 2011. Also, although the Council’s position was to reduce spend in the administration budget by more than €160 million and to cut the total budget for the EU’s regulatory agencies by almost €12 million, even that would have left a rise in administration of 2.5%.
I should remind the House that when we had the opportunity in the European Parliament to vote against the rise in the Parliament’s 2010 budget, we took it. Although the Council had battened down the rise proposed by the Commission, the Government could not accept the proposed level of budget increase and we therefore voted against the Council’s first reading. In fact, six other member states joined us: our Nordic partners—Finland, Sweden and Denmark; and the great brewing nations of Austria, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The Council’s position was, however, adopted by a qualified majority, although I just remind the House that we were very close to achieving a blocking minority on that vote; we were just three votes away from doing so—we got 29 votes when we needed 32. That is why we have been working so hard with our European partners to put our case, because we want, at the minimum, to be in a position to have a blocking minority. We really want to aim for a majority, and that is what we are working towards.
I know that, as we have just heard, the European Scrutiny Committee is considering the Council’s first reading position and the Commission’s first amending letter. However, I thought it would be helpful for Members taking part in this debate to be given an outline of that developing position. I referred to this briefly in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), but I can say that more than 90% of the 2011 budget for the EEAS is transferred from the existing budgets of the Commission and Council. As he points out, an additional €34.5 million is requested to fund new staff posts and other start-up costs.
Overall, the proposal includes the following: first, the establishment plan of more than 1,600 posts—this includes 100 newly created in 2010, and 18 requested for 2011, carrying a remuneration cost of just under €19 million; secondly, just over 2,000 other staff, 70 of whom are newly recruited this year, costing an extra €2.5 million in 2011; thirdly, other staff-related spending, of which less than €2 million would be additional; and, fourthly, spending on buildings and other operational spending amounting to just over €157 million, less than €4 million of which would be additional.
The amending letter stated that cost-efficiency, budget neutrality and efficient management should guide the EEAS, and, as I said, it set a target of 10% efficiency savings in headquarters. Although the Government acknowledge that some additional funding is required in the EEAS’s first full year, it is essential that the EEAS demonstrates not only value for money, but budget discipline in its funding bids and a firm commitment to substantial cost efficiencies. It is vital that the aim of budget neutrality is respected, so we are pushing for immediate cost savings and stressing the importance of achieving cost efficiencies, including in decisions over the EEAS’s premises.
We have also pushed, thus far successfully, for the Council to state on the record that the term “budget neutrality” for the EEAS applies solely to the context of the EU budget. We pressed for that so that we can counter unhelpful suggestions from the Commission in the future that additional spending at EU level could be offset by savings in member states’ diplomatic services. Such suggestions are completely unacceptable to the UK.
I am extremely heartened by the proposition that my hon. Friend has put before the House this evening on this matter, but will she examine this very carefully indeed? I know that the EEAS was opposed by Conservative Members and is the legacy of those on the Labour Benches. As she would say, we are where we are, but on this point of budget neutrality will she make it her business to look carefully at any further proposals to increase expenditure on the EEAS? Budget neutrality has already been breached by the European Commission and it is likely that further attempts will be made to breach it in future.
I assure my hon. Friend that we are looking across the piece to challenge rises in all areas of the EU budget, including the EEAS. As he points out, only months ago we were given an assurance that there would be fiscal neutrality and that has already been broken. We are challenging that and I believe we are doing so successfully. I assure him that we are making our case very strongly within the EU to challenge those sorts of spends when they are bad value for money and when the money is spent in an unplanned way that has not been agreed and was not passed in the original proposal that was signed up to. As he points out, that proposal was signed up to by the Labour party when it was in government.
So, let me wrap up. Although the annual budget negotiations are not the usual forum to achieve major budget reform, we have still set out our stance. We will be looking for a cash freeze in 2011 and, in this time of austerity, Europe needs to be looking to make the same efficiency savings that we are making in the UK.
I know that the House is interested in this topic, so I shall touch on it briefly. The European Parliament’s Budgets Committee has voted on this budget and the European Parliament in plenary will be voting next week on the European Parliament’s position on the 2011 budget. We have done our best to ensure that our Government’s position on the 2011 budget has well and truly got through to MEPs. We sent a lobbying note to the UK MEPs in September clearly setting out our position.
I cannot confirm those reports, but I can tell the hon. Lady that the European Parliament is now considering in detail its response to the European Union 2011 budget. It might well decide to take a position that has a broader perspective than purely the size of the European budget and the split of that budget across the headings. As she will be aware, if there is no agreement, the conciliation process will take place, and of course I cannot prejudge how the European Parliament will approach that and whether it will seek a broader negotiation process than just that on the budget. She is right to flag up the fact that the Parliament might choose to do that, which is why it is all the more important that Ministers and the Chancellor are out making our case with the European Parliament and MEPs as to why we believe that saying no to the totally unacceptable 6% rise is absolutely vital for all MEPs. I hope that the Opposition will play their role with their MEPs in ensuring that the European Parliament takes the right position on the European Union budget. I have spoken with James Elles, an MEP who is on the Budgets Committee. As I have said, I will be in Brussels tomorrow to reiterate our position.
We anticipate that the long-overdue budget review paper from the Commission will be published in the next 10 days. We then expect the Commission to present proposals for the next seven-year framework for the EU budget in the first half of next year. I can assure hon. Members that the Government will strongly defend the UK’s national interests in the forthcoming EU budget negotiations. We are clear about what matters to the UK. We will defend the UK’s abatement, which is fully justified owing to distortions in EU spending, and we want the EU budget to be smaller, so that our domestic efforts to cut the deficit are not undermined by growth in EU commitments.
No, I think I need to wrap up.
We are absolutely committed to pressing for the EU budget to be smaller. We will not have rises in the EU budget undermining our attempts and our desire to tackle our fiscal deficit. We will challenge the 2011 budget, which does just that.
I welcome the support of this House in sending a common view to Europe. I hope that we will be able to do that later tonight and I look forward to seeing whether we get support from the main Opposition party on this matter, too.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Minister said that the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) would commit the Government to an illegal act. Am I right in saying that any amendment accepted by the House for debate is in order and that it would be quite improper for any amendment to commit Her Majesty’s Government to anything illegal? Were not the Minister’s remarks a matter of debate rather than a statement of fact?
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for his point of order. Certainly, from my reading of amendment (b), I am not aware of any exhortation to illegality. The hon. Gentleman will understand, and the House will appreciate, that it is not for me to become enmeshed in an argument between hon. Members as to the merits or demerits of a particular amendment. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman, whose concern for propriety is unsurpassed in any part of the House, is quite simply that the amendment is not improper. If it were improper, I would not have selected it; it is perfectly proper. On the subject of propriety, therefore, he and others need have no cause whatever for concern. I hope that is helpful to the House.
The Minister certainly talks very tough talk about the current EU budget negotiations, but I have several questions about how she intends to turn that talk into action. She has given a very clear exposition of the negotiations to date—the Commission originally proposed an increase of getting on for 6% in the payment appropriations; the Council then discussed reducing those appropriations; and the UK failed, at that meeting, to persuade a significant number of member states to accept the EU’s position that there should be substantial cuts. We are now at a halfway house, which means that there will still be an increase in the budget. I understand that the EU Parliament will vote next week, on 20 October, on whether to reinstate all the budget lines. Why does the Minister think that the UK Government failed in that way at the meeting and why, when the Chancellor went to ECOFIN in May to propose a cash freeze, was he unable to win a consensus?
The hon. Lady talks about failure. Will she remind the House how many times in the 13 years of the previous Labour Government Ministers raised one question about the fact that the European Commission’s accounts were not being signed off by the European Court of Auditors?
That is completely irrelevant to the subject that we are debating. The matter has been discussed in the House on many occasions and has been raised by many of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues. I understand that, as a new Member, he was not in the House then, but it has been discussed many times.
No; I want to make a little progress. I have not started saying what I intended to say.
I am slightly confused by the Minister’s stance on the motion and the amendments. The motion states that the Government support
“efforts to maintain the 2011 EU budget at cash levels equivalent to the 2010 budget”—
in other words, a freeze. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) argues that there should be no increase in the EU’s budget, which is pretty much the same position. Although the Minister implied through everything she said that she wants the budget to be smaller, that is not what the motion states. Will she clarify whether the Government are arguing for a freeze, or whether they support the 34 Back Benchers who have signed amendment (b) calling for cuts in the budget? Will she also clarify what she meant when she said that it would be illegal to support amendment (b)? I would be very happy for her to intervene on me to explain the element of illegality. If there were not that illegality, would she call for cuts? If so, why does not the Government’s motion say that there should be cuts?
On the legalities, we are part of the EU—I am sure that some hon. Members wish that we were not, but we are—and we are under a treaty obligation to make payments. If we were to stop making payments, we would breach our treaty obligations, which we are not able to do under law. If we went down that route, presumably any other European country could do anything it liked against any particular treaty obligation it thought inappropriate, which would not be conducive to good diplomatic relationships or to progressing the case that we want to make for a cut in the 2011 budget. I hope that that has clarified matters for the hon. Lady. Perhaps I can press her to confirm whether Labour MEPs will support our Government’s policy stance for a cash freeze in the 2011 budget.
I am here to put the questions to the Minister and to find out what her stance is. She is trying to placate Conservative Back Benchers, who are clearly unhappy about the lack of progress being made by the Government. It is tough talk, but it is all talk and there is no action. When she goes to Brussels tomorrow, what will she see as success in those negotiations? What is she aiming for?
I want to make progress. The Minister cannot just talk tough on European issues and pander to people who want to take us out of the EU. She is here to make progress in negotiations and to fight Britain’s corner. I have asked her what she would see as success in doing that.
On the specifics, we are here to debate whether, when EU member states and regions are all engaged in belt tightening, the EU itself should engage in a similar exercise. The Minister has said that sizeable austerity measures are being implemented across the EU. Does that not in itself prove that this economic situation is a global phenomenon that affects all EU member states and not, as the Government say every time Ministers get to their feet in the Chamber, the result of profligate public spending by the previous Government?
That is obviously partly related to the fact that the UK has probably the largest financial centre globally—it is certainly far and away the largest financial services sector in the EU. There is a more significant impact on the UK economy, London being as it is, as opposed to other countries.
To return to my speech, I shall not take any more interventions for a while. Labour Members believe, as we have always done, that the EU should always scrutinise its expenditure carefully and closely in cutting waste. We want to ensure that the budget is spent wisely and well, and that there is demonstrable added value for the member states and regions as a result of such expenditure.
We welcome the fact that the EU Parliament has chosen, for the first time, not to go above the ceiling set out in the budget at a time when member states face economic hardship. That demonstrates that the Parliament has at least gone some way to appreciating the challenges, but the issue today is whether we should go further. The Government, despite all their talk and bluster, seem to be singularly failing in their aim of putting a lid on what the EU Parliament wants to spend.
Labour Members fully support the principle that the EU budget needs to play its part in an era of fiscal consolidation, and we do not think it right that there should be significant real increases next year, but we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The EU has key roles to play, and it was noticeable in the Minister’s speech that she made only passing reference to the good things that come out of working with our European partners. In particular, it is important that the EU continues to foster growth and recovery, which is the priority for us here in Britain. As Europe is our largest export partner, growth in Europe is an essential precondition for our recovery.
We welcome the stated key objectives for the draft 2011 budget, which are to support the EU economy and recovery from the economic and financial crisis, and to help EU citizens by reinforcing economic growth and employment opportunities. It is somewhat ironic that as the European Parliament debates and votes on the draft budget on Wednesday 20 October, when it will focus on the admirable and important objectives of supporting recovery and growth, we in the UK Parliament will hear a statement on the comprehensive spending review from the Chancellor, who clearly rejects an active role for the Government in securing such objectives and believes that cuts, cuts and cuts alone are the way forward.
Will my hon. Friend take on board two observations? On an earlier intervention about the Commission’s budget not having been signed off for the past 10 years, is she aware that neither has that of the Department for Work and Pensions? On a much more practical point, if the great ambition is to make us economically successful, will my hon. Friend reflect on the Lisbon agenda, which was supposed to make us the most competitive and technologically advanced economy in 2010 and has singularly failed to do so? Why does she have so much faith in the 2011 aspirations?
There was also the 2010 strategy. In the flagship initiatives set out in the documents before us today, there are some good programmes that we should support, to the extent that they have demonstrable outcomes and that they make a difference, rather than being fine words that do not achieve what they set out to do.
Let me go briefly through the headings in the budget. The Minister was unspecific. She spoke generally in favour of a cash freeze, but did not specify in which areas. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) will refrain from heckling me quite so much. She is a near neighbour of mine, and we get to talk rather a lot on the television cameras outside the Chamber. It is extremely distracting, and she will get a chance to contribute later if she wishes. That is fair.
Under sub-heading 1a in the budget, on competitiveness for growth and employment, we support funding that encourages the effective operation of the single market, including addressing transport challenges, such as the greening of transport systems, and promoting sustainable, low-carbon economic recovery and growth. It is important to continue to support innovation and research and development on, for example, the environment, clean energy, energy efficiency and promoting a knowledge-based economy. Europe has a key role to play in that.
On structural and cohesion funding, which is included under sub-heading 1b, much of that spending is key to EU enlargement. Sensible steps to ensure that that money is well spent, which we agree should be taken, should not be allowed to slip into undermining the important principle that enlargement is in the UK’s long-term interest.
I hope that the shadow Minister will be gentle with me—I am a new Member, after all. We keep going back to the same point, which is that for all the good that she says the European Union does—she has highlighted several areas of spending—we still do not know whether that money has been spent, because the accounts are never signed off.
I will not repeat the point about the hon. Gentleman not being in the Chamber on many occasions when we have had similar debates. As with any public spending, it is important that there is some measure of outcomes, so that we can be sure that there are demonstrable changes and that objectives will be achieved as a result of the spending programmes. We are committed to that. To use the argument about the accounts not being signed off to dismiss everything good that the EU has done and all the initiatives on which we are working with our European partners is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as I said earlier. The argument is used as a red herring by those who are against the entire European project.
I shall come on to that point, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.
We support some of the structural and cohesion funding, but we agree with the Government that budget levels should be realistic and reflect absorption capacity. In certain areas throughout the EU budget, planned spending levels are indefensible, and, in response to the question that was just asked, we believe that spending under heading 2 on the preservation and management of natural resources should not be a priority in the current economic climate. We do not support that scale of spending on agricultural intervention, and we will support the Government’s close scrutiny of it.
We very much welcome, however, the Government’s statement that there should be an increased emphasis on development objectives, including on reaching the millennium development goals in poorer countries, and we believe that adequate funding is necessary to achieve those aims.
Finally, we also support the Government in pushing for reductions in the administration budget.
No. I am coming to a conclusion, and the hon. Gentleman will have his chance to speak in a moment. Where efficiency savings can be found, they should be found, and there are significant savings to be made in that area. I can see that many Members want to speak, so I do not intend to delay the House any longer. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.
We heard a very interesting and comprehensive analysis from the Minister, and I intend to press my amendment (a) to a vote. I agree very much with the sentiments that lie behind the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell). I wish only that, before tabling it, he had had a word with me about its wording, because I suspect that we would then have been able to arrive at an agreement. For some reason that completely escapes me, however, he decided to go ahead with his wording.
I went ahead with my amendment, because I have to recognise that the Government are about to engage in some incredibly important negotiations. They have to achieve a blocking minority, which I shall explain in a moment. That is not just a technical question, but a question of whether the Government can, first, get enough people to vote on the conciliation agreement, assuming that we reach such a point, and then achieve a blocking minority so that the Commission has to propose a new budget. That is what we are fighting for.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to secure such leverage in the conciliation process, it is not helpful if the main Government party is in alliance with those whom the Deputy Prime Minister calls nutters, homophobes and anti-Semites from extreme fringe parties in east Europe, and not in the same family as Mrs Merkel, Mr Sarkozy and other centre-right leaders?
Order. May I gently say, with reference to the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and as an encouragement and a cautionary note to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), that I know the hon. Gentleman’s response will very much focus on matters relating to the European budget?
It will, indeed. I shall make no response to that absurd intervention.
We must achieve our objectives, which are not only to prevent any increase in the budget, but to reduce it. I say that to my hon. Friends as one who, I think, can undoubtedly claim to have fought these battles relentlessly, persistently and consistently for the best part of 25 years—and, if I may say so, with some degree of success in establishing the parameters within which we are now able to address the European issue. In a moment I shall mention what happened at the European Scrutiny Committee this afternoon, merely to illustrate the progress that we have already made in the few weeks that I have had the honour of being the Committee’s Chairman. The whole process has to be conducted in an effective and orderly manner. Otherwise, it plays into the hands of those such as the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who want to pretend that somehow there is no justification for our adopting the position that we need to adopt. Tortuous and tedious as it is, the most important thing is to get it right. We have to get the blocking minority if we want to move from wanting to stop the increase to achieving the reduction that follows from it. Let us be responsible about this.
I do not have the slightest objection to the sentiments that lie behind the other amendment. It bothers me, however, that we have two amendments that appear to compete with one another, but in fact convey the same ideas, yet one is orderly while the other is disorderly. I leave it at that; it is for my hon. Friends to judge.
Does my hon. Friend accept that Mr Speaker has already said that the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) is in order; that there is nothing inherently unlawful about it; that there is no reason, based on either law or principle, why Members of this House should not vote for it; and that it is therefore perfectly in order?
When I say that the amendment is disorderly, I mean that it would, in my judgment, make it more difficult for us to achieve our objectives. I was not referring to it as being disorderly within the framework of the procedures of the House. I make that distinction very clear.
Our net contribution to the European Union is rising from £6.4 billion this year to £8.3 billion in 2011-12 and £10.3 billion in 2015, and our gross contribution is rising from £14 billion to £19 billion. The Budgets Committee is placing a demand on member states to open negotiations on new own resources; the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) says that that is a
“full part of the overall agreement on the 2011 budget”.
It is reported in the Financial Times that MEPs are even considering an amendment to
“open the way to establish a European tax, making the institutions less reliant on contributions from national governments.”
On top of the budget, the European Parliament is shortly expected to vote on proposals to extend maternity rights to 20 weeks at full pay, which will cost the British Government an extra £2.5 billion a year.
It will be well understood in the House that I am gravely concerned about the developments in this direction. I merely want to be sure that the Government, as well as being able to negotiate this particular, rather difficult round, are able to get stuck into reducing not only the budget itself but the functions that lead to that budget, because the two run together—it is like Parkinson’s law.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech on something about which he knows more than anybody else in the House. His amendment would freeze the budget, while the other amendment calls for a reduction. That may be difficult to achieve, but would it not be helpful, rather than a hindrance to the Minister, as she flies off tomorrow, to know that a certain number of Members want a cut?
That has to be a judgment for Members in deciding which way they will vote on these amendments. In my view, because of the complexity of this problem and the uncertainties about whether we will be able to achieve a blocking minority in the Council of Ministers—I shall explain the procedure in a minute—we must do nothing that would play into the hands of the Eurofanatics in some of the other member states who want to go down the same route as the European Parliament by endorsing this increase and increasing the budget resources, which is what they are intent on doing in the wake of the Lisbon treaty. That is the problem. It is a matter of judgment, but it is also one of analysis, which is why I take the position that I do.
I may say that I had no discussions whatever with the Government on this issue. I simply tabled my amendment last night because it struck me that in the light of the discussions in the European Parliament—and not in light of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, which I had not seen—the European Parliament was being thoroughly irresponsible, or at any rate the Budgets Committee was. We have yet to discover whether the European Parliament will persist in the same view.
On top of the proposal for the European budget, there is one to extend maternity rights. It is now clear that it is intended to have a £3 billion increase in the European budget for that reason. The 27 member states will be snubbed if the European Parliament votes in line with the European Commission’s proposal. Recent increases do not include the already agreed, and grossly extravagant, €1 billion increase in the European budget for 2010, which was caused largely by the Lisbon treaty.
On the subject of austerity and responsible measures, according to Government figures the collective budget deficit of the EU’s 27 member states will reach the staggering sum of €868 billion this year, which is more than 7% of the bloc’s gross domestic product. That, of course, is because the European financial crisis is real. One need only look at the countries otherwise known as PIGS—Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—not to mention France, which must be included in a lot of the analysis, to see the real implications of that for the individual lives of voters in this country. The governing economic and financial framework established by the EU must be not only revised but radically curtailed.
The budget increase also relates to the extensive bureaucracy that we are having to pay for, such as the European External Action Service, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) rightly pointed out. Members, including me, raised the gravest objections to the proposals for that body that were made a few weeks ago.
While Westminster and Whitehall, and the country at large, are quite rightly being asked to make savings, what is happening in Brussels? The European Parliament adopted a resolution on 18 May proposing a budget of €1.707 billion, which is a 5.5% increase on the amended 2010 budget and represents 20.28% of the EU’s administration budget.
Many Conservative Members would broadly agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments; I do not believe there is much division among us on the matter. What practical steps does he think Her Majesty’s Government can take to stop the grotesque expansion in the budget?
The budget is part and parcel of the issue of parliamentary sovereignty, which I shall come on to in a moment. If we are to act properly and responsibly in our own Parliament, we shall have to deal with this Parliament’s relationship with the EU as a whole. If we get that right, we can proceed in an orderly manner to the questions that we must ask in the political environment that we now experience. That will ensure that we are not subject to further increases in European functions or to the assertions of the European Court and other European institutions on the sovereignty of this House.
With great respect to my hon. Friend, with whom I have had many useful discussions on this matter over the years, I do not agree for the reason that I have already given. It all depends on whether, as a result of the forthcoming negotiations, we achieve a blocking minority in the vote on the conciliation agreement. That agreement has not yet been mentioned, but regrettably it is integral to the procedures that we now face.
I fear that there might be a slight misunderstanding, because I suspect that all Members on the Government side of the House—or even all those in the Chamber—and many people in the Conservative party and the country at large, would agree with both amendments. The distinction I am drawing between them is simply that in the real world we must address such matters in a certain fashion. I do not want to advance my amendment simply because it is mine. It will not do any good if we go too far in merely expressing a sentiment with which everyone agrees, if the consequence of doing so is a counter-productive result. That is why I am taking the position outlined in amendment (a). I urge my hon. Friends—not for my sake, but simply for the sake of ensuring that we get things right—to support it.
As a matter of fact, it is pretty obvious that I am not a member of the coalition Government, so let us dispense with that idea straight away. In my votes over the past few weeks, I have probably demonstrated that I have certain reservations about the situation, but I am not going further down that path now.
If the European Parliament is allowed to get away with this, it will add fuel to fire of the riots and demonstrations that are already sweeping many cities in different countries throughout Europe. Those countries face problems of immigration, economic stress and high unemployment, and wilfully to attempt to increase the EU budget when the whole thing needs to be rejected is, to my mind, irresponsible. If the EU Parliament persists, it cannot be regarded as a serious and responsible Parliament. That is my concern.
I am grateful to my ESC colleague, who is now Chair of the Committee. I do not disagree with his facts and many of his criticisms are fundamental to the approach of the European Commission compared with that of the UK Government and this Parliament, particularly on the proposal for a tax. However, on trying to achieve a blocking minority, would it not be better in fact to support the Government’s proposal than to take an absolutist approach such as the one he proposes in amendment (a) and, quite frankly, the one that is proposed in amendment (b)?
Mine is not an absolutist position in the sense in which the hon. Gentleman puts it. My amendment (a) says that an increase is simply not justifiable. What is justifiable could also be described as what is fair and right. I have just described what I suspect will happen throughout Europe if people continue to increase the budget irrespective not only of our spending review, but of the crisis in Greece and of the situations in other member states, including very high levels of unemployment, the rise of nationalism that goes with that, and the populism that will emerge from those who want to agitate and create trouble. We want a stable Europe and a stable United Kingdom, which is precisely why I take the view that we need to act responsibly and ensure that the UK Government have every opportunity to achieve their objectives. I assure the House that nobody can accuse me of being in any way reluctant to speak my mind on matters relating to the EU, and I am sure that no one would presume to do so.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his long years of campaigning on this issue and his work as Chairman of the ESC. Given the provocative behaviour of the European Parliament and its attitude to a budget increase, which he outlined, should this House not put down an equally strong marker by strengthening the Minister’s negotiating hand and saying, “Far from increasing or freezing the budget, we want a reduction”?
I do not want to enter into an unnecessary altercation about this with my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton, but if the wording had been put to me, I would have included the words “and if the European Parliament and its committee persist in the behaviour that they are now engaged in, we would have to call for a reduction in the budget.” It would be on that basis, not on the basis of requiring the Government to respond when they are in the process of negotiations. Perhaps the distinction comes at that point, although I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments.
No, I have heard enough from the right hon. Gentleman. All he does is repeat his old mantras—[Interruption.] I do not accept that: I simply need to get to the next point that I wish to make about the procedure that is to be followed.
It is clear in the light of the current state of affairs that the Government should adopt my amendment and reject the increase. The European Parliament, in the current austerity conditions, is wilfully affecting the economies of the 27 member states, and of the United Kingdom in particular. My European Scrutiny Committee has today agreed to have a full inquiry reaffirming the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament in relation to the assertions of the European Court of Justice on such matters. The Government have agreed to the Committee’s demand for pre-legislative scrutiny, and I am happy to announce that the Minister for Europe will give evidence in public on these critical matters—and that will have an impact on the issues that we are discussing in this debate—as will other experts on the compatibility of Britain’s membership of the European Union with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty in the light of the European Union’s own assertions that the parliamentary sovereignty of this Parliament has been overtaken.
The Government have announced that they will introduce a clause to address the question of parliamentary sovereignty, but our Committee will examine the implications of this in the light of the declaration of primacy of European law by the European Court of Justice and as contained in the Lisbon treaty. All these matters require the closest analysis for the sake of our democracy and the electors of the United Kingdom on questions relating to taxation, spending, the European budget, our contributions and all the functions of the European Union. We have an absolute requirement to get this right and we will have a full examination of the issue of parliamentary sovereignty, including the subject matter of this debate.
It is always helpful when the Minister for Europe is present, and I endorse my hon. Friend’s view. However, the Economic Secretary has set out the Government’s view and their determination to get the negotiations right. They will have to succeed in that aim, because there is a huge amount at stake.
The Commission submitted its draft budget to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, but the Council rejected the Commission’s proposals by qualified majority vote. The proposals then passed to the European Parliament. In the next few days, it is expected that the European Parliament will adopt the amendments to increase the budget and forward the amended draft to the Council of Ministers and the Commission. The European Parliament and the Council will then convene a conciliation committee to seek to resolve their differences, if any. It is essential that the Government negotiate a blocking minority of 91 within the Council of Ministers to stop the increase at that point. The decisions will be taken by a majority of 14 out of 27 MEPs on that conciliation committee, together with a majority of the 27 member states on the Council of Ministers. That is why it is vital that the Government have the strongest possible mandate to negotiate a blocking minority to determine whether there is agreement in the conciliation committee on the joint text—as I am sure is the intention. If both the MEPs and the Council of Ministers, through their respective procedures, reject the joint text, or if one rejects it and the other fails to take a decision—this point is crucial, and that is why this is such a delicate matter—the European Commission is bound to propose and submit a new budget that will deal with the problem properly.
That is why I take the position that I do in my amendment. I am in no way detracting from the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton. I absolutely endorse those objectives; indeed, I have advocated them repeatedly—relentlessly—over the past 20 years. However, there comes a moment in the tide of man, as they say, when it is essential to get the responsible procedures working in an orderly manner. I do not in any way want to find the Government’s position compromised by a vote that could take place this evening, the effect of which would be to put the Government position into reverse.
We are at a crucial moment. I very much respect my hon. Friend’s objectives, but in this context it is important to get things right. On this occasion, I would strongly urge my hon. Friends to accept my amendment and allow the Government to proceed on that basis, rather than on the basis of something based on a hypothesis.
Order. As hon. Members will see, there is a great deal of interest in today’s debate. Some 10 Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and as this is a time-limited debate I will ask each of them to consider how long they will speak for, so as to ensure that every Member who wants to make a contribution can do so before the time elapses.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this important debate, although I will not detain hon. Members for long. First, I commend the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee for what he said. It is interesting to see him as a restraining voice in Euroscepticism. What he said is common sense. The Government have to go to Brussels or Strasbourg—or wherever they meet—with, one would hope, the united backing of the House or, if not, at least the united backing of those on the Government Benches. I will certainly be supporting the hon. Gentleman’s amendment; indeed, I will support both amendments if they are put to a vote.
I have been a member of European Standing Committees for some 13 years. Over those years I have debated European budgets countless times, yet in all that time none of them has been approved by the European Court of Auditors. We just seem to nod through the fact that a budget costing the countries of Europe billions every year is not approved by auditors. We just accept it. One cannot imagine the British Government doing that—not having their Budget approved by auditors—every year.
There has been a significant increase in our net contribution, and that will continue. Attention was drawn to the problem yesterday—very well, I thought—by the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) in Treasury questions. Indeed, I have spoken many times about the Blair deal—the deal made that December night a few years ago when, apparently without consulting very many people, he arbitrarily gave away a significant proportion of our rebate. The Economist—not a supporter of left-wing Eurosceptics such as myself—said that no deal would have been better than that deal, and it was right. I shall therefore be supporting the amendments.
The budget is fundamentally flawed and has been so since its inception. Throughout that time, the core of the problem has been the common agricultural policy. I have called many times for the common agricultural policy to be abandoned and for agriculture policy to be returned to member states. Member states have different agricultural industries, and each of us would choose what to subsidise and how to subsidise it. Our own agricultural sector needs some subsidies, particularly in certain areas—an example would be Welsh hill farmers—to preserve our rural heritage and industries; it is sometimes necessary for them to be sustained by subsidy. The way the CAP operates is nonsense, however. We have changed it over time, but it has not been properly dealt with.
Another problem is that the net redistributive effect of the budget acts in an arbitrary way, in that some relatively rich countries are net recipients, whereas some relatively poor ones are, unjustly, net contributors. We have a smaller agricultural sector than many other countries, and we have, unfairly, been a net contributor. I would not agree with Mrs Thatcher on many things, but I thought it was right that she negotiated a rebate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I shall differ from Conservative Members now, however, by saying that I should like a socialist approach to Europe, whereby the redistributive effects of the budget are balanced in such a way that the poorest countries are net recipients and the richest are net contributors, in proportion to their relative living standards and the success of their economies. As one of the richer countries, we would no doubt be a net contributor, but such a system would be rational and fair. The budget as it stands is neither rational nor fair.
We ought to return to the Blair agreement. If we are to negotiate a more sensible budget with our European colleagues, we should start to look at contributions again. If our own contributions had been negotiated in sterling cash terms, rather than euro cash terms, we might not have suffered so much as a result of depreciation. We are paying more because we necessarily depreciated our currency, although I am glad that we kept our own currency and that we are able to flex it according to our own needs.
Other countries have suffered terribly through being unable to do that—Ireland is a case in point. In real terms, it is part of the sterling economy, not the euro economy, and it has suffered as a result of our depreciation, because it has been unable to depreciate its currency. I have told Irish colleagues whom I have met through the European Scrutiny Committee that the logical thing for them to do would be to recreate the punt and devalue against the euro to come into line with sterling. That would be very beneficial for the Irish, and I hope that they will consider doing it at some point. It would be fairer for us if contributions were measured as a proportion of gross domestic product, because they would not be subject to change as a result of depreciation.
I have spoken many times on the European budget, and I believe that it is nonsense. I am waiting for common sense to appear on the horizon, but it has not done so yet. I hope that, if we have to have net fiscal transfers in the future, they will be considerably smaller because there will not be a CAP. I also hope that they will be related to the relative prosperity of the member states, so that the poorer nations benefit and the richer ones contribute.
I respect my hon. Friend’s logic, even though I do not support his conclusions on the European Union. He has a background as a trade union negotiator, and I cannot understand why he thinks we should tell the Government that they cannot have a negotiating position and that they must adopt the position that they are given. Surely they need to be able to negotiate what they are looking for—namely the cash equivalent—regardless of how it is balanced within the budget. They will be negotiating with 27 other countries, along with the Council and the Parliament. Is not my hon. Friend’s instinct as a trade unionist to give the negotiators the flexibility to come out with a deal, rather than to given them strict instructions on what they must come out with at the end of the negotiations?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I believe that all negotiators need to have something in their back pocket—something to argue with. If the Government go into the negotiations saying, “My members will not tolerate an agreement unless it is satisfactory”, that will give them some strength. I hope this House will provide that kind of support to negotiators. I would much prefer to be on the Government than the Opposition side, but I hope that the Government will stand up and do the right thing.
Finally, the Minister spoke about standing up for British interests, but that sort of nationalistic approach does not go far enough. What we need is an arrangement that will secure the support of other member states. We have to persuade them that we need a more rational and sensible approach to the budget that is also fair to all concerned—and, indeed, considerably smaller in view of the need to abolish the CAP. If we can get others on our side, we might start to make progress, but if we argue simply in nationalistic terms, I do not think we will.
That said, Britain has a strong negotiating position. If we were in a position to push hard, we would know that the EU needs our membership more than we need to be a member of it. We have a massive trade deficit with the rest of the EU, which gives us a strong negotiating position. If we were challenged by other strong states, they would know that their economies would suffer if we were no longer part of the EU. If we had trade barriers between member states, they would suffer much more than we would. The point has been made many times.
I have some figures with me. Our trade deficit with the rest of the EU in July—the last month for which figures are available—was £3.9 billion. That is for one month, so we need to multiply that by 12 to get an idea of the annual figure. That amount was an increase on the £3.2 billion of the previous month. The EU needs Britain, so let us try to make an EU that is looser, more democratic and leaves greater powers to member states. Let us have an EU that has not a nonsensical budget, but one that is fair and beneficial to all concerned.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has done as much as any Member to encourage this House over many years to consider its duties in a wider European context. He is the best kind of Committee Chairman—one who never forgets that the role of his Committee is to hold the Executive to account, regardless of which party is in government. I thank him.
All hon. Members face spending cuts in their constituencies—cuts that none of us wanted and cuts made all the more painful by the economic downturn. With the exceptions of health care and overseas aid, every Government Department is looking for budget reductions of between 25% and 40%. At the same time, however, our net contributions to the EU are rising by 60% over the next two years—from £6.4 billion this year to £8.3 billion in 2011-12 and to £10.3 billion in 2015.
Our gross contributions, of course, are higher still. Currently £13.3 billion, they are scheduled to rise to £19 billion. Although it is true that some of that money is spent in the United Kingdom, it is by no means always spent on projects that we ourselves would have chosen to spend it on. In any case, normal practice in politics is to measure what people actually pay rather than to deduct the notional cost of services they receive in return. Would any Member argue that the basic rate of income tax is not 20p in the pound but zero, on the grounds that the entire sum is given back in the form of roads, schools, hospitals and so forth?
The sum of £19 billion is, of course, colossal—enough to give the entire country a 50% rebate on council tax in perpetuity or to pay off our Olympic debt in a single year. The scope of amendment (b), however, is not nearly so ambitious. It would not strike out the entire EU budget—it is not about that—and it would not even strike out the increase in the year-on-year EU budget. All this modest proposal is designed to do is to reject the additional sum that the European Commission demanded over and above the increases already built into the 2011 budget.
At a time when every one of the 27 member state Governments are struggling to find savings, the EU must show some willingness if not to reduce its budget, at the very least to be satisfied by the increases we have already given it. Why has the EU come back on 15 September and asked for more resources? The Commission has been admirably frank that the additional funds are earmarked for three institutions: the European External Action Service, Europol, and the three supervisory agencies that will regulate financial services. I remind Members that the European External Action Service is the EU’s diplomatic corps. It already has about 20 times the budget of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Europol is the EU’s police agency, and the three new supervisory agencies have been widely denounced as likely to drive revenue away from the City of London to non-EU financial centres.
In other words, we are being asked for this extra money to fund three projects that are not in the interests of this country to start with. How much is the bill? To be precise, the EU has awarded itself a €3.6 billion budget increase this year, and Britain’s share of that increase—not its share of the budget—is £380 million. The bail-outs and the financial stimuli around the world have, of course, recalibrated our sense of monetary value, but even by today’s standards we are talking about significant sums. Given this morning’s headlines about the pressure on public sector jobs, it might be helpful to calculate how that £380 million could be translated into Government spending. It would pay for 6,022 NHS doctors, 12,666 NHS nurses, 14,600 police constables, or 22,332 Army privates.
The purpose of the legislature is to control the Executive. In the last analysis, that is why we are all here. The additional work that we do in scrutinising laws, taking up cases for our constituents and participating in debates is valuable, but essentially supplementary. When we strip it down, we see that Parliament exists to ensure that the Government do not spend our money wrong-headedly. That has been the elementary function of our predecessors since the Tudors, if not the Plantagenets.
I will support the amendment, because I could not look the people of St Albans in the eye if I asked them to make economies and explain why cuts are necessary, and then voted for a measure that would mean the EU’s sucking out more and more of our money. I do not think other Members could explain that to their constituents either.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to the other 32 hon. Members—many of whom are present—who supported the amendment. The £380 million increase comes at a time when there will be costly cuts in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in others—cuts that none of us wants to see—and when it is surely wrong to reduce spending on public services in order to increase the money that we give to EU institutions.
The hon. Gentleman said that some of the increase would fund the External Action Service. Does he recall that when the service was debated in the House, it was promised that it would be budget-neutral? That was bad enough—there should have been a decrease—but can the hon. Gentleman explain why we are now being asked to finance an increase in its funding?
I cannot. I wish that I could, and I should have liked to hear an answer from the Minister. I am perplexed and puzzled about why we are now being asked for an additional increase in funding for a measure that we were told was budget-neutral.
The issue before us is indeed one of supply. It is a question of whether we think that our constituents’ money is being well and wisely spent. Do Members believe that, in our current financial circumstances, we should find more resources to pay for, among other things, high commissioners’ entertainment allowances and additional staff for Members of the European Parliament? Is that really the best possible use for this money? Is it better to spend it on that than on the 13,000 nurses whose jobs we might otherwise save, or on 22,000 servicemen? I do not think it necessary to be either Eurosceptic or fiscally conservative to believe that there are better ways to allocate our finite resources. When all the Governments in Europe are cutting their budgets, it cannot be right for the EU bureaucracy to be expanding.
If we do not think that this is the best use we can make of our constituents’ tax contributions, our duty is clear: we should support the amendment and reject the increase. Our predecessors fought a long and bloody civil war to establish that only this House might raise revenue for central Government through taxation. We are the inheritors of a sublime tradition, but also of a heavy duty. It is not for any outside agency, either our own Ministers or overseas Commissioners, to tell us how to dispose of this nation’s resources. We shall make that decision guided by our consciences, and in the interests of those for whom we speak.
I respectfully seek to press the amendment to a vote. Others have signed it, and I hope that they will speak in its support tonight.
I rise to cast a protective arm over the Economic Secretary as she confronts the massed ranks of well-argued opposition from those on the Benches behind her. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) gave a masterclass on why the amendment of the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) should not be pressed to a Division, but we will see what happens.
This debate is part of a long process of changing our relationship with our partners in Europe, and I do not know where it may end. The hon. Member for Clacton emotionally talked about the nursing jobs that could be saved and the extra soldiers who would not need to be relieved of their duties, but the problem here is not the fault of the European Union. Rather, it is a consequence of a set of decisions that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition has taken. It is seeking to reduce the deficit over four years, much as if I could abolish my mortgage deficit over that period. I wish I could do that—by starving my children, perhaps, or cutting back on other spending. That is the Government’s decision. It is nothing to do with Europe itself. At the end of the day it must never be forgotten that the EU budget represents just 1% of Europe’s gross national product.
I have absolutely no objection to that point. The right hon. Gentleman is right. If he wants to advance that argument, however, he does not have to persuade me, and the hon. Member for Clacton does not have to persuade the fellow signatories to his amendment. We have to link up with others, in the right hon. Gentleman’s case with fellow conservatives and centre-right politicians across the rest of Europe.
The hon. Member for Stone brushed aside my earlier intervention, but the plain fact is that a fortnight tomorrow the leaders of Europe—the vast majority of European Governments including those of Mr Reinfeldt, who has just been confirmed in Sweden, and the new conservative-liberal coalition being formed in the Netherlands—[Interruption.] I am so sorry for the disturbance caused by my mobile phone ringing. I shall make a donation to any charity you wish, Madam Deputy Speaker. Those leaders in Europe will sit down to dinner and discuss precisely the points raised here tonight, but there will be a Banquo at that feast: the British Prime Minister.
I am not going to tell the Prime Minister what to do. He did not quite win the election, but he has settled in well as Prime Minister. He has to decide whether his collegial dining comrades at European feasts where decisions are taken should include rather interesting gentlemen from Latvia, Poland and elsewhere. I can quote the Deputy Prime Minister’s description if it helps, but I think most Members have it in their mind.
The other point that we have to consider is that 20 years ago the EU was largely financed by what is called own resources, such as VAT and duty. I know tax is anonymous but some taxes are less in the payer’s face than others. There has been a massive change in the past 20 years in that the EU budget now comes from direct Government contributions. Therefore these arguments are now deeply sensitive in all nations. People in the poorer—perhaps the east European—countries ask why they are signing a big cheque for the British rebate. I am prepared to defend it, but we would be in a much stronger position if more Members were networking across the continent, making the points they are making today and finding allies and friends of weight and seriousness. Frankly, the Conservatives are not doing that at present. I try to make that point more in terms of political science; at this time in the evening, there is no point in seeking controversy.
This is the first of a serious set of debates, and the Government will have to decide. My estimate is that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, is speaking just as if there had been no change of Government. The European policy of the coalition is no whit different from that of the previous Government in its broad approach to European issues. That may change, but the Conservative party will have to decide whether it wants to confront the deep national interests of this country that have never opted for protectionism or isolationism, no matter how seductively those positions have been put—they have certainly been put that way tonight.
I congratulate the Economic Secretary to the Treasury on an excellent and most competent speech. I listened to her and to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), so may I say to him that the last thing she needs is his protective arm around her? He could do worse than to put his arm around himself, because the end of his speech contradicted its beginning. At the end he told us that now, more than ever, our contribution to the European Union budget comes from general Government expenditure. Therefore, if our contribution increases, we have to increase taxation, cut expenditure or run up a bigger deficit, at a time when we are trying to reduce the one we have. He would do well to reflect on that.
I noted that in all the advice the right hon. Gentleman and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), gave us, neither of them told us—we will be watching this—how they would advise MEPs to vote when this matter comes before the European Parliament once again, under its procedures. Will MEPs vote in favour of the Council to keep the budget down or are they going to vote in favour of the Commission and for more spending on the European Union? The hon. Member for Bristol East may not want to answer the question tonight, but her MEPs will have to vote or abstain in the European Parliament. They will be watched as to how they vote and we will remind them of the effects that this measure would have in this country.
I was a member of the European Scrutiny Committee and I wholeheartedly supported recommending this document for debate, because it is precisely the sort of thing that this House ought to debate. Something caught my eye in the figures that the Economic Secretary put before the House: the European Commission was seeking in its budget this year an increase of 5.8% or £7 billion in payment appropriations—at this of all times. That comes after increases in the past three years of 3.9%, 1.6% and 2.3%. That raised a question in my mind: how on earth at a time like this, when this country and other member states are facing such stringency in their public expenditure and are seeking to reduce their deficits, could the European Commission have the instinct to seek an increase in its spending? A cynical mind might say that the European Commission made proposals to increase spending on such a scale thinking that they might be trimmed back and that it was aiming for what it would get when those were trimmed back.
Be that as it may, the Economic Secretary is doing exactly the right thing, exercising her powers and this country’s influence to the utmost. I would like those powers to be greater, but they are what they are and they are being used to restrain the European budget, to seek alliances with other member states and to seek to bring about the reductions that she has talked about. It is in this country’s interest that she should do that, and I am sure that all hon. Members on the Government Benches wish her good luck in her endeavours.
Reference has been made to the rebate, so I do not propose to dwell on that. However, because this country’s rebate has been abated in part—in 2005, somewhat inexplicably, when this country had a veto and could have prevented any such abatement—we must have to bear a higher proportion of any increase in European expenditure than would otherwise have been the case. As has been rightly said, that means that our net contribution to the European budget is set to rise progressively from £3 billion in 2008-09 up to £9.5 billion in 2014. That is a substantial increase, which is inexplicable. Historians will have an interesting time examining the motivations of those who took part in the relevant discussions in 2005, when the case for this country was put by the previous Prime Minister but one.
The thing that strikes me more than anything else as I peruse this document and the various budget headings is how little attempt seems to have been made to economise on the part of the European Union—and not only that, but how little attempt has been made to cut back on planned expenditure. It seems that the European Union is ploughing on as though nothing had changed in the world.
Talking of planned expenditure, one of the worst examples, I am afraid to say, is the European External Action Service. We were promised originally—I remember taking part in the debate with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds)—that it would be budget-neutral and the rumour was that nobody in the European institutions believed that. Surprise, surprise, after we were told that it would be budget-neutral and given a solemn assurance to that effect by the European Commissioner, the European Commission started coming back for more increases in expenditure. So far, in the brief time that has elapsed since it started to put that organisation into place, it has already breached the principle of budget neutrality twice, with increasing amounts being sought—the most recent was an increase of £35 billion for an extra 190 posts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in the current financial circumstances we should be talking not about budget increases or even budget neutrality but about reductions in the EU budget, as proposed in the excellent amendment (b)?
If there were a search for economies in the European budget, one of the best places to start would be the External Action Service. I have a suspicion that although some of its activities might be worth while, the prime motivating force behind the establishment of what is in effect a diplomatic service is the promotion of the European Union itself rather than the interests of member states or their citizens. I suspect that there might be scope for economies.
Let us be clear that what is being sought is planned increases in the External Action Service. Let us spell out the facts of what it will cost so far as it stands—as the Economic Secretary made clear. So far, the cost of the External Action Service, which is on the record under the so-called budget neutrality, is €400 billion. The diplomatic service has 3,700 employees and posts in about 130 nations in the world, many of which already have British diplomatic representation. Spending of that magnitude compares, I am afraid, with the search for economies that is being made in our Foreign Office, where savings of much smaller amounts of money are sought all the time in the face of the demands that have been made to try to economise. It would be sad to see the Union flag taken down in some countries in the world while the European flag was run up. I would regret that, as I think our Foreign Office does a good job in the world and represents the interests of our country. Its prime consideration is to represent this country and our citizens’ interests, rather than searching for exterior political objectives to do with the European Union.
This has been a very good debate. I commend the line that has been taken by the Economic Secretary. The facts are stark and anybody who reads these budget documents will be shocked that such increases are sought by the European Union at this of all times. It also prompts a question about the relationship between the European Union institutions, the Commission of the European Union, our constituents and the man on the street in every European state. What must be the attitude at a time when there is so much concern about the economy, when people are suffering and when cuts are being made if the European Union somehow feels that it is immune from those pressures and can go on increasing its expenditure?
Let me reinforce that point. When referendums have been held in a number of countries, the people have voted against the European Union, in essence. That has happened in France and Holland, and in Sweden when they voted against having the euro. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He has a very consistent record on this issue.
An increasing proportion of our laws, certainly as a result of the past 13 years, are being passed in the European Union, which searches constantly for new fields over which to exercise authority. It has made its way into home affairs and justice and it has huge ambitions regarding security and criminal justice. It also seeks to have an increasing influence over foreign affairs, with the establishment of a Foreign Minister and a diplomatic service. We know that it has all those great ambitions and we would do well to reflect, in the House, on what the increases in the budget say about the EU’s attitude toward individual citizens and its accountability to them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary for her comments. I shall raise a couple of issues because I should like a tiny bit of clarification on a couple of matters.
I welcome the shadow Minister to her role. Obviously, I am very new here, but what she probably does not know is that, alas, I have had to follow the European budget for 10 years as a Member of the European Parliament. In that time, I followed the abject failure of Labour Ministers who came to Brussels, gave away money and powers and did not care for this country. They did not bother to raise any questions when we were looking at the accounts and whether or not they were signed off. The hon. Lady might have forgotten the failure of a former Prime Minister who went and tried, when he was Chancellor, to get back money from structural funds but failed and then went quiet on the issue. I very much doubt that the hon. Lady has yet, in her new job, read the European budget line by line and page by page. Alas, I did that nine times out of 10: the 10th time, I found a fantastic new doorstop.
I am not going to talk about the budget in financial terms, as my hon. Friend for Harwich—[Hon. Members: “Clacton.”] I love these boundary reviews; they are so much fun. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) has outlined the costs. I want to press home the process behind all this. Having sat on the back benches of the European Parliament, watching all this go through, I have seen the process get to the stage that we are at now, when the European Parliament’s Budgets Committee adopted its wishlist for how much more money it could possibly spend, and I know what comes next. There will be a little knock-back from the Council at the meetings that the Economic Secretary is about to attend and then there will be the stage at which these matters will be decided by qualified majority voting, because that is how all this works.
I suppose so; I have heard it put in slightly more complicated terms. At the end of the qualified majority voting process, member states coalesce into different groups and it is quite remarkable that we have so many member states on our side at this time. That is something else that the Labour Government utterly failed to achieve on any occasion when it came to the budget. I think we are heading in the right direction.
I want the House to give our Economic Secretary the strong message that a number of us are simply reflecting the views of the people who elected us to this place. They see a lot of money being wasted and a lot of excess in the European Union and they know that we want to do something about it, but we need to negotiate from a very strong position. I know that the Economic Secretary is an unbelievably good negotiator. She speaks many languages when she goes abroad to talk to our European friends and those with whom we have to negotiate. I would like her to know that when she goes into those negotiations she can say, “This Government have taken a perfectly reasonable position. We are reasonable, but look at the Members of the House of Commons who are trying to represent their constituents—they are absolutely livid about the position the Government are taking just to get a half-decent cut, or maybe a standstill, in the European budget.” We are trying to give extra force to her argument—nothing more, nothing less.
I commend what we are doing in the European Parliament. My colleague James Elles, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, has tabled many fantastic amendments, some of which might go through, because he is an able negotiator who knows the institutions very well, and some of which will not. However, we will still end up in the same position whereby, at the end of the process, the European Commission’s budget is bigger this year than it was last. That is unacceptable to the British public.
President Barroso recently gave a state of the Union address. I talk about that because I want to put into context where the argument sits now. We might be talking about the 2011 budget for the European Parliament, and I am trying to look forward to how we negotiate in the negotiations that are just opening up for the next financial framework. President Barroso put his cards on the table in his state of the Union address: not only does he want more money, but he wants to raise it in a completely different way. A former Minister for Europe talked about own resources; essentially, President Barroso would like to have a European tax. There is a debate for us to have on that.
Some people want a European tax because more member states are having debates such as the one in the Chamber today whereby their parliamentarians say, “You are spending a lot of money from direct taxation, not from the way you used to raise it.” My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) referred to that and it is unacceptable in the current economic climate.
That is a good question. I am not convinced that it is possible. There is only one way to get rid of any European Commissioner, and that is to get rid of the whole lot. That involves a process that an individual constituent— [Interruption.] No, I did not. I was way too young to be there.
May I suggest one way to address the particular issue of getting rid of some of those people? The British people should be allowed a referendum on the question of our relationship with Europe. Instead of having a referendum next May on the alternative vote system, which is not what people want to talk about, should we not have a referendum on this issue, which everybody is interested in?
The answer is yes.
I want to wind up by taking us back to the process that we are involved in. We are discussing the EU budget for 2011. Coming down the track is the EU budget for the next five or six years. If we do not make a stand now, we will be viewed as a pushover when we come to those negotiations next time round. We have done fantastic work. There has been no failure whatever by our Front-Bench team in already getting a bunch of countries to agree with what we are saying on the EU budget. I want the Economic Secretary to know that behind her she has so many friends wishing her to do well. We are just representing the British people in what they want as well.
I want to begin my short contribution by stating firmly that I am not anti-European. Much to the horror of many of my colleagues, I am also not a member of the “Better Off Out” campaign. I hasten to add, before my hon. Friends have a heart attack, that I am also not an overt pro-European. I simply recognise that our membership of the EU needs to work in our national interest and provide value for the British taxpayer.
In my constituency and across the country, our membership of the EU vexes people. Typically, they are resentful of its bureaucracy, centralised structure and perceived unaccountability. They cannot understand why so much of our country’s decision-making process has been shifted to Brussels, when it should be here. With that in mind, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s recent announcement that a sovereignty Bill would be introduced, allowing authority to remain in our Parliament.
On the topic of today’s debate, the draft EU budget will rightly be subject to close scrutiny. At a time when our country and Europe as a whole are enduring one of the harshest economic climates for a generation, the European Commission has proposed a 5.8% increase in the draft EU budget, demanding an increase in net contributions of staggering amounts from its member states. The UK alone can expect to pay nearly £2 billion more in the coming year. How many schools, hospitals, doctors, teachers and nurses could £2 billion pay for? In the light of the scaling back of departmental budgets in this country most, if not all, will find it difficult to reconcile the two.
In order to put the draft budget and its proposed increase in context, we must be clear about what preceded it and our current spending commitments. It is widely accepted and entirely accurate that the previous Government mismanaged the negotiations of the previous EU budget in 2005, leaving us as a country contributing a significant amount of money with a poor rate of return. Our contributions exceed those of France by some 20%, despite our economy being only a fraction larger than that of France. Our rebate, so generously relinquished by the previous Government, is left greatly reduced. We still have a common agricultural policy commanding a significant portion of the EU budget, yet British farmers receive a disproportionately small amount of the overall funding.
To ask the British taxpayer to fund a further increase to an already over-inflated and questionable contribution would seem a clear affront. In addition, it poses an interesting and important question. At a time when we are asking British taxpayers to tighten their belts in the national interest and driving down costs where necessary, is it fair to ask for belts to be loosened again for an excessive EU budget? In my constituency, Chatham and Aylesford, with two of the most deprived wards in the UK, it will be painfully ironic to many that as necessary cuts and trimming of our public services are carried out in the coming months, we are locked into spending commitments elsewhere that are not always in the nation’s interest.
I share the Government’s drive to get value for taxpayer money in public services and across Whitehall after years of waste and inefficiency, which is why we must ask ourselves whether the EU is prepared to do the same. I admire the Government’s commitment to keeping their own administrative costs to a bare minimum, but in the original draft EU budget published in April I was horrified to see a proposed increase of nearly 4.5% in EU administrative costs alone. I hope this will be looked at throughout the review. It clearly highlights the mindset of those in Europe and raises serious questions about whether they share our Government’s commitment to achieving value for taxpayers’ money.
I welcome the Government’s stance in seeking to freeze cash payments to the EU and agree that this would be the most desirable outcome. The UK’s membership of the EU should be like any club transaction—you get what you pay for. That clearly was not the approach adopted by the previous Government, and once again the taxpayer has been left to foot the bill.
However, in the unprecedented economic climate that we have endured and are faced with, the EU is in the unique position to promote and contribute to the economic recovery. The EU’s mandate ought to be centred on filling a transnational role, tackling issues affecting Europe as a whole such as climate change and energy security, and naturally its budget should reflect that. It is regrettable that the new Parliament is restricted to voting on the basis of the previous Government’s ill-advised negotiations. Not only did the previous Government bankrupt this country, but through the EU budget their legacy lives on.
Our Government is not alone in opposing the rise in the EU budget. Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands all share our concerns. I therefore urge the Government to seek to form a consensus with other member states who share our concern, throughout the review of the budget. With UK Departments and services under severe financial pressure, and constituents throughout the country facing unprecedented strains on the pound in their pocket, I cannot see how we can justify increasing our contribution to the EU when it, in return, refuses to make similar spending reductions.
It is a delight to speak in this debate as a new Member, particularly as the country was denied a vote on the Lisbon treaty and this is the first post-Lisbon budget.
When the Lisbon treaty was passed, we heard claim after claim that it would make the EU decision-making process more efficient and democratic. How can it have led to more efficiency, when the EU budget is due to increase by 5.8% in payment appropriations? Even the Opposition, with their astonishing record on spending and waste, would struggle to justify an annual increase in spending on that scale. I very much doubt that, in the current economic climate, any Department calling for such an increase in its budget would be given any consideration.
The Government’s position is to keep cash levels at the same rate as last year, but, at a time when most domestic Departments are looking to make efficiencies and cuts ranging from 25% to 40%, why is the EU not being pushed further? With a total budget exceeding €130 billion, it is not unreasonable for the Government and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in her negotiations, to pursue the Commission and other member states to make deeper cuts in order to bring down the cost of the EU and to protect the British taxpayer.
My constituents in Witham and the majority of the British public now understand that the Government are dealing with spending, and that spending must come down. As decisions affecting my constituents are taken, however, they will be furious to see that, although they cannot have their new school buildings or road improvements for now, more and more of their hard-earned money is being handed over to Europe.
Having gone through the draft budget, which is a significant document, I note that there are some significant and questionable increases in spending, which the Economic Secretary should seek to reverse in her negotiations. There is an extraordinary document entitled, “Administrative expenditure of the institutions”. Linked to the budget, it is an alarming read, and figures for each institution, line by line, give a shocking insight into bureaucratic waste in the EU.
Those figures include an 85% increase in “Entertainment and representation expenses”; a 440% increase in
“Miscellaneous expenditure on the organisation of Euromed Parliamentary Assembly meetings”;
a 43% increase to €19.6 million on
“Expenditure on publication, information and participation in public events”;
a 23.6% increase in
“Contributions to European political parties”;
a 24.7% increase in
“Contributions to European political foundations”;
and, on top of that, as we have already heard, the
“Provisional appropriation for the 18 additional Members of the European Parliament”,
which under the Lisbon Treaty will cost €9.4 million.
I have previously questioned the Europe Minister, who is not here today, on that matter, but, while this Parliament reduces its numbers and cuts its costs, subsidies and expenses, surely the Economic Secretary should make the same point about Europe when she comes to negotiate with her European counterparts.
Only last month, another example of EU waste was brought to my attention. Promoted by the East of England Development Agency and the East of England European Partnership, the document entitled, “Europe for Citizens”, opens with an extraordinary and, one could argue, helpful statement, proclaiming:
“Europe for Citizens is a funding programme that basically provides a large number of small grants.”
I find that statement astonishing. In spite of the economic difficulties that face this country and, in fact, other European states, a pot of money amounting to €215 million is available for “High visibility events”, “Town twinning”,
“Structural support for think tanks”,
“Support for projects initiated by civil society organisations.”
Trimming those budgets and other activities would save the British taxpayer quite a lot of money and even bring some long overdue financial management to the EU.
Next month, as we have heard, we will have the spectacle of the European Court of Auditors finding, no doubt, even more irregularities in the EU budget for yet another year running. In any well-respected democracy, no organisation spending money on that scale would be able to get away with the auditors not signing off its books, or with the level of previous errors, which most Government Members attribute to the previous Government’s maladministration. I urge the Economic Secretary to ask for stringent guarantees that money spent by the EU will be spent not only efficiently but robustly and effectively, and that the auditors are doing their job properly, because there are so many instances of waste and unaccountability. British taxpayers are not sufficiently up in arms about that issue.
Instead of acknowledging the deficiencies in its budgets and its incompetent financial management, the EU lives in denial, pursuing a policy of blatant spin and propaganda, and attacking any organisation that dares to question how taxpayers’ money is being spent. On its website, there is a whole section devoted to so-called “EU budget myths”, and a “myth-buster guide” has been published. The EU goes as far as to state that we should
“not confuse errors with fraud”
and that there are
“too many errors, usually made by the end users of EU funding.”
This budget and the forthcoming negotiations clearly provide an opportunity to challenge the EU in its way of working.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when the Economic Secretary engages in these negotiations, which I have no doubt that she is more than qualified to lead given what she said earlier, it would be to her advantage if we supported amendment (b), because going in and asking for a reduction in the budget instead of just the status quo would help our case?
I totally agree with that.
The situation is without a doubt unsustainable. Particularly given the EU’s previous track record as regards misappropriation of funds and lack of transparency, current funding levels cannot continue. EU officials need to understand that the British public cannot be treated like fools. We can clearly see through the spin, the propaganda, and the abuses of taxpayers’ money for endless self-serving vanity projects that are not in our democratic, economic or national interest. Just as sunshine has proved to be the best disinfectant on issues such as MPs’ expenses, it is about time that some sunlight was shone on to the EU budget.
They are welcome to IPSA, as well.
It is an appropriate coincidence that we are discussing the EU budget on the very same day that Baroness Thatcher celebrates her 85th birthday. What better way to celebrate the Iron Lady’s birthday than for the Economic Secretary to go to Europe tomorrow, stand up and really fight our corner, and say those immortal words, “No, no, no”, giving an ultimatum to her European counterparts and the Commission bureaucrats as they press for larger sums of money to be spent and attack our rebate?
I wish the Economic Secretary well in those fundamental discussions and negotiations. Our country has paid a high price on previous occasions, and our sovereignty has been undermined. We have Europe meddling in our affairs, taking billions of pounds from the hard-pressed British taxpayer. I urge her to put Britain’s interests, and the interests of the British taxpayer, first.
I rise to support a reduction in the EU budget. As some Members may be aware, I have advocated that any such cut would more than meet the costs of providing a second aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy.
Who would have thought that less than six months after the election we would be having a debate where a Conservative-led Government would be denounced by many of their Back Benchers for being soft on Europe? I was surprised to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) say—I think that he is correct—that, as far as he can tell, there has been almost complete continuity of policy from the previous Government to this Government in terms of their relationship with the EU. I have noticed that many commentators are similarly remarking that there seems to have been very little change in policy towards the EU. I hope that that is simply a question of settling in, and that when the Government find their feet they will be much more prepared to stand up for British interests.
There is another possibility. Yesterday, we heard that the alternative vote referendum was being brought forward simply as a concession to the Liberal Democrats—the Liberal tail wagging the Conservative dog. I hope that the Government’s softness on the European Union is not another case of the Liberals having received undue concessions from the Conservatives. I point out to Conservative Members that it is not possible to buy Liberal Democrats—they can only be rented for short periods, and one can never rely on their remaining rented. If the Conservatives are counting on the Liberal Democrats to support them all the way, they are likely to be sadly mistaken.
Unless I am very much mistaken, it is noticeable that there are no Liberal Democrats here at the moment, unless Members who are sitting on the second Bench back have joined them.
Are they all in it together? Yet again, I suspect that the Liberals are leaving the Conservatives to do the dirty work for them and put the budget through. I imagine that if the Conservatives carry on their course of action and we have an AV voting system next time around, the UK Independence party will do far better in the first ballot than it might have done in the past. I find it a great cause for regret that the Conservatives seem to have gone soft on Europe in such a short period.
I normally agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, but will he cast his mind back to the previous Parliament? When did a Minister talk the way our Minister has spoken tonight, and when were the Government Benches as full for a European debate as they are tonight?
That is a very fair point. Not many times were the Benches behind a Minister full of Members denouncing the Government for being too soft on Europe. There were a number of us doing so, but not nearly as many as there are tonight. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
Some of my colleagues who spoke earlier touched on the iniquities of the EU budget. As someone who was a member of the Public Accounts Committee for a number of years, I am in complete sympathy with everything that has been said about how the auditors have qualified the accounts. The whole matter is a complete and utter disgrace. The audited accounts only tell part of the story, of course, because they do not cover the fact that EU income and the income of individual countries is enormously depressed by the extent of fraud, underpayment, under-collection of VAT and so on, which is reflected in the EU budget. [Interruption.] Can I have a lack of heckling from my hon. Friends in front of me, who support most of my arguments?
The EU budget is about not only the net and gross amounts of money flowing back and forward, but how that money is spent. Were it given by the EU to the British Government to spend, we would not be spending it in the way that we are. We have created a dependency culture among farmers. I know a number of farmers—admittedly not many of them are in my constituency—who concede that what they mostly farm now are subsidies. The whole pattern of their growing and activity is determined by the subsidies that are available from the EU, irrespective of the agricultural, financial or economic rationale. That is not rational or right, and such decisions ought to be repatriated to this country as quickly as possibly.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) asked what the actions of Labour MEPs were likely to be, but I think that there is little doubt. We should remember that virtually all Labour MEPs were selected under the new Labour system of allowing only those in favour of ever-closer union to progress. I can remember when a number of Scotland Labour MEPs were Eurosceptic, but when the new system of proportional representation was introduced, Labour put them all out. Ever since, only those in favour of ever-closer union have come forward. I would be astonished if any Labour MEP does anything against those interests and the interests of the greater growth and development of the EU.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s honourable record on this matter, but will he acknowledge that the description that he just gave admirably suits the Quisling-in-chief now occupying the position of Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, who always urged the previous Labour Government on from the Back Benches?
Now that the hon. Gentleman has withdrawn his remark, I shall not respond to it.
The point about the External Action Service has already been made, but I was astonished at the time of its creation that so many otherwise sensible people believed that it would result in no net growth in expenditure. Of course it was going to, and it was always intended that it would do so. It is interesting that those who wish to be deceived are deceived, including by promises from the European Union to moderate or reduce expenditure. That is simply a fig leaf. Those who accept such promises choose to do so, and then pretend to be astonished when it turns out that the situation is different. The idea that the Lisbon treaty is not the constitution is simply laughable, and only those who wish to be deceived by that twisting of words are so deceived.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the root of the problem is not only the EU budget, but EU functions, which were greatly increased by the Lisbon treaty? The ESC agreed this afternoon that we will examine fully the question of parliamentary sovereignty as against European functions. Does he also agree that a precondition of reducing EU functions is asserting UK sovereignty, and requiring the judiciary to give effect to Westminster legislation and to override European legislation as and when necessary?
That is very welcome indeed. Pursuing that sooner rather than later is welcome.
The point about the External Action Service is not only that it costs more money, but that it is invidious. The desire of the EU is that it should be a state and that the EAS should be an embassy. I note that the EU has just taken over enormous premises in central London. Those will be nothing other than a centre for pro-EU propaganda and an attempt to intervene directly in British politics and British political affairs in a way that we would not tolerate from any country—I almost said “any other country.” We would not allow the Austrians, the Australians, the Canadians or anybody else to have a propaganda outfit in this country that spent enormous amounts to intervene directly in British politics, yet we are prepared to allow the EU to do so. In my view, its wings ought to be clipped.
The hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who I believe has left the Chamber, commented on the extent to which we reflect our constituents’ anxiety about EU spending. I think that he was wrong, because we do not accurately reflect those. The balance of this debate is clearly in favour of constraints on EU spending, and that reflects the balance of opinion among the public, but I fear that the vote will not reflect that because vast numbers of Conservative MPs will be driven like sheep into the Lobby to support the Government and oppose any proposal to restrict the expenditure of the EU.
I hope that we will be able to return to the discussion of a referendum. It is correct for Conservative Members to point to the Labour Government’s failure to honour their commitment to a referendum on the constitution, but I point to the Conservatives’ failure to do the same. Given that next year Europe intends to re-examine its budget and the common agricultural policy, we should start by saying that that major revision should be put to the British people in a referendum, to determine whether they are prepared to accept the new financial arrangement, which will represent—I hope—a considerable break with what has happened in the past. Of course, it may not break with the past, but it would strengthen the Government’s hand enormously if we made it clear that they were prepared to take any new financial settlement with Europe, achieved after a long period of debate, to the country for resolution.
In the meantime, I support the proposals that urge a reduction in the EU’s expenditure, and I hope that we will not discover that a majority of Conservative Members oppose those proposals.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) and I agree with much of what he had to say. I have no intention of criticising the Economic Secretary tonight. Indeed, I support the new Government’s position on the European budget and it is much more robust than was the previous Government’s. In fact, I pay tribute to the Economic Secretary’s contribution to the debate, which contrasted starkly with what we heard from Ministers in the previous Government. There is no suggestion that any one part of the coalition is directing another. It is especially unfair to suggest that the Liberal Democrats are not here for the long run. I fully understand that a Lib Dem is not just for Christmas—if you’re lucky, there will be some left over.
I also thank the shadow Minister for her remarks. She did a great deal of good for the argument made by those of us who believe that the European Union and its budgetary processes have gone too far. In fact, by confirming that the Opposition have no policy on the issue of the European Union, she has made our job much easier. The Opposition’s position is very strange. They complain about spending cuts across the country, but they fail to say what they think about the European budget. Do they think that their constituents should be deprived of spending commitments in this country for the sake of an increase in the EU budget? That is a bizarre and strange position, but it is one that I do not have to defend to my constituents.
I urge the Economic Secretary to ignore the advice of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who suggested that we should engage in some sort of trail of dinner parties—presumably paid for by EU taxpayers’ money—as, he said, the previous Government did. Where did that get us? It lost us our rebate and saw the previous Government committing to increasing the EU budget even further. We need no lectures from the Opposition on how to address this process.
I am a committed Eurosceptic. My antipathy to our membership of the European Union is widely known, and I made it very clear to my constituents at the election that I would seek a different relationship between this country and the European Union. However, that is not the debate we are having tonight. We are talking about whether we should approve sending more of my constituents’ hard-earned cash to Brussels to be spent elsewhere. I am not happy to support that position, and I will certainly not support it.
What are we being asked to pay for? We are being asked to pay for a 2.5% increase in the administration costs of the European Union, at the very time when we are telling councils and Government agencies across the country that they have to reduce their administration costs. How can I square that circle to my constituents? We are being asked to approve a 5% increase in contributions to the pension budget. At the same time, I am telling my constituents that their public sector pensions will be linked to the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index. We are also proposing to spend an extra 4.15% on the EU schools budget, at the very moment when we will be asking schools in this country—including, possibly, the one at which I taught just a few months ago—to spend less.
We are also asking Government Members and taxpayers to approve more money for the European External Action Service. I am pleased to say that when we had the debate on the European External Action Service, I was one of the Members in the No Lobby. As was mentioned earlier this evening, we were assured that the programme would be cost-neutral, but we now know that we will spend an awful lot more taxpayers’ money on a body to represent my constituents overseas for which they did not vote.
I do not need to talk about what the extra money going on this budget increase could be spent on. We have heard about the 12,000 extra nurses or the 14,000 police constables on which it could be spent. I am not certainly going to go back to my constituents and tell them that I have voted to spend money that could have been spent on front-line NHS nurses, teacher support in schools or our brave servicemen.
We have heard a great deal today about the previous Government and what they gave up. It is an absolute disgrace that they gave up our rebate, for absolutely no reform. For the past 30-odd years, we have repeatedly been told, “Well, we’ll accept this little budget increase in Europe in return for some reform.” We have always been told that some reform is coming down the line, but it never comes, because the European Union is institutionally incapable of reform. There can be no doubt about that at all.
Indeed, as my hon. Friend says, there is no incentive for any sort of reform.
Those who support the budget increase have made great play of the fact that the amount spent on the common agricultural policy has reduced. It has indeed reduced: it is down to about 42%. However, even without the fraud and mismanagement that we all know about, the OECD has warned that the real cost of the CAP is £125 billion a year, so we could go a great deal further. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned the fact that we are now in the strange situation whereby farmers are effectively farming subsidies. However, I have talked to many of the farmers in my constituency, and I have to say, “If only they were.” Instead, we are asking them to manage environmental schemes, and at the very time when we are becoming more and more reliant on imported food.
I mentioned in an intervention on the shadow Minister that we cannot get away from the fact that the EU budget has not been signed off for some 15 years, and there is no doubt that it will not be signed off again, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) said. Like other right hon. and hon. Members who are present, I am expected to go to my constituents and tell them that we would like to take more of their money to put into an institution that cannot guarantee that the money will be spent where it says it will be spent. I am not prepared to do that on behalf of the good people of Brigg and Goole who sent me here and whom it is my privilege to serve.
There is a broader issue, about the relationship between this country and the European Union, which touches on people’s engagement with and perception of the European Union, which was mentioned in earlier speeches. I note that Open Europe, which is a very sound pressure group, conducted a poll that found that 54% of people agreed with the statement that the Government should drop the Lisbon treaty and not try to ratify it. That 54%, as was proved in other polls, was ignored; the previous Government forced the Lisbon treaty through and broke an election promise. Some 65% of people believe that the European Union is out of touch with normal people, but sadly it is normal people’s hard-earned cash that is used to fund the EU, while 88% could not name their MEP. I wish that I did not know the names of some of my MEPs. Turnout for European parliamentary elections was at its highest in 2004, an abysmal 38.5% when I was up for election as a councillor, and it is a pretty poor pass when councillors such as me are used to drag up the European election turnout.
There is a general view in this country that the political elite is out of touch with the British public on the issue of Europe. My concern is that, if we approve yet more cash for the wasteful institution that is the EU, the gap between what the public expect and the position of the political elite will widen yet further. That would not be healthy.
Many people at the last general election who cared a great deal about Europe and were furious about it felt that voting Conservative was the way to ensure that something would be done about the massive amount of waste and bureaucracy in Europe. We owe it to them to achieve that.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, what we heard from the Economic Secretary to the Treasury today was incredibly refreshing, and I am heartened that she is going to fly off to Brussels tomorrow and bang the table on behalf of British taxpayers. The British people expect someone to stand up for them in Europe, and I have no doubt that the Economic Secretary will do so.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that this should be a question not of freezing the amount of money that we give to the European Union, but of reducing it substantially? If we are cutting departmental budgets here rather than freezing them, we should also be reducing the EU budget. That is what taxpayers want.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. It has come to a strange pass when I have to explain to my constituents why a number of their play parks, costing some £5,000 to £10,000 each, can no longer be afforded because we have run out of money—as we know we have, because Labour has admitted it—only to have to tell them that we need to find £435 million more to send to projects overseas. I fully accept that some of that money will come back here, but a large chunk of it will not. We would not expect our constituents to invest in a bank that offered that kind of a deal.
I support the strong stance that the Economic Secretary set out earlier, and I hope that there will be significant movement on this issue in the coming months and years. However, we are being asked tonight whether we are prepared to ask our constituents, at a time when we are making massive cuts and asking them to make savings, to foot the bill for much more money for Europe. That is not something that I am prepared to do to the voters of Brigg and Goole.
Order. I want to inform the House that I intend to give those on the Front Benches time to make a brief response to the debate, and I shall do that at 8.22 pm. There are still a number of Members who wish to speak, so I ask them to do the maths and to help their colleagues out if they can, please.
Over the past few months, we have spent a lot of our time debating one aspect or another of the financial crisis in which the country finds itself. Britain has a huge deficit, and the British public have collectively built up a mountain of personal debt. All in all, we are in a real mess. The Government have set out a series of measures to reduce the national debt, and I know that many individuals—including people in my constituency—are trying hard to cut down their indebtedness. These are tough times for us all, and we are not alone. Many other countries around the world, including many in Europe, are facing huge financial challenges and struggling to balance their books without pushing their national economies into another recession.
In this era of uncertainty and austerity, what does that organisation of probity and good governance, the European Commission, do? It proposes to increase the EU budget next year by 5.8%, which in real money represents an increase of £6,102 million. What planet do European Commissioners live on? They live on the planet of self-indulgence. They live in a cushioned climate of privilege in which the Brussels gravy train does not stop long enough for them to see what is happening in the real world.
To be fair to our own British Government, at least they recognise the stupidity of the European Commission. As the Economic Secretary wrote in a briefing note and confirmed this evening, the Government are very concerned about the proposed increase in appropriations of 5.8%. They might be very concerned, but I would be absolutely livid. I give at least one out of three cheers to the Treasury for that statement but, sadly, I cannot bring myself to give it any more cheers. My hon. Friend let herself down in addressing the EU problem by proposing that the EU budget remains at cash levels equivalent to the 2010 budget. That is also why I cannot support amendment (a). I bet all those Ministers tasked with making a 20% cut in their departmental budgets are a bit narked. I am sure that in the present economic climate, they would be delighted to be given a zero growth budget.
Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, I have been inundated with letters and e-mails complaining about the proposed cuts in benefits, increases in tuition fees and changes to public service pensions. There is a great deal of disquiet out there and representing a constituency that has some of the most deprived areas in the south-east within its boundaries, I share some of that disquiet, but I am happy to go into bat on behalf of the coalition Government and to argue the case for those cuts. I believe that in their heart of hearts, most people in my constituency understand that we have no choice but to push through those cuts if we are to reduce the mountain of debt we inherited from the previous Government.
In common with my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), however, I would not be able to look my friends and neighbours in the eye if we drove through a programme of painful cuts in our public services, while at the same time bunging the EU billions of pounds to waste on grandiose schemes such as the European External Action Service and the European Institute of Gender Equality in Vilnius, Lithuania, for which, incidentally, the UK is being asked to cough up £800,000.
Next year, the European Commission proposes to spend £7 billion on administration. By my calculation, the UK’s contribution to those administration costs will be about £1 billion. If Government Departments and public bodies in this country are being asked to cut their administration costs, it is surely right to expect the European Commission to do the same.
I am aware of those figures and I think that they are scandalous.
My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has said that the British Government will press the EU to deliver greater value for money, and I am sure that she and the Government will do so, but does anyone here really believe that our friends across the English channel in the European Commission will actually listen to them? When the draft budget is eventually presented to the European Parliament for debate later this year, do Treasury Ministers really think that anyone other than a small group of British MEPs will take a blind bit of notice of their view? I think not.
I would personally like to see the Government unilaterally reduce the UK’s contribution to the EU budget for 2011 by the average percentage cut imposed on Whitehall Departments. If the European Commission and the European Parliament do not like it and kick up a fuss, we should immediately hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership and let the British people decide our future once and for all. Perhaps we could hold it on the same day as the referendum on the alternative vote.
I support amendment (b), and I urge Members in all parts of the House to do the same.
I think it worth repeating plainly from the outset—not least in response to some of the observations made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson)—that the last Government failed hopelessly to stand up for the British national interest in Brussels. They failed to secure the overhaul of the common agricultural policy that Tony Blair promised, and they failed to defend Britain’s rebate, as a result of which we now pay an extra £2 billion to Brussels each year. As we have already heard, they also broke their promise to the people to give them a say on their own future through a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. The present Government have done more to fight Britain’s corner in Europe in the last six months than Labour managed in 13 years, proposing a referendum lock, retaining Parliament’s right to review the UK budget before the Commission, and defending the rebate.
With that in mind, I welcome the Government’s pledge to work to control the growth of the EU budget and to deliver better value for money for the British taxpayer. That is imperative as we act to reduce the largest budget deficit in the G20, inherited from the last Government. I also welcome the fact that the Commission’s proposed increase for 2011 has been halved, from 5.8% to 2.9%. That is a start.
The case for a more robust and rigorous approach to these negotiations is now overwhelming. It cannot be right for the European Commission to bid for a rise of almost 6% in its budget when so many member states, including Britain, are having to rein in excessive public spending. Let us take just one example. Why is the EU budget on justice and security going up when the UK faces cuts in spending on police and prisons at home? That is even less defensible when we consider the Commission’s detailed plans for the money.
First, there is the enormous waste involved. We have already heard about the EU’s administrative budget, which is set to rise year on year by between 4.4% and 5.5%. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government will continue to resist strenuously an increase in the amount of British taxpayers’ money that is forked out on this bloated bureaucracy? Secondly, there are the special interests—what the Americans call pork-barrel spending. Is it really necessary to spend €104 million on
“increasing the circulation of European audiovisual works inside and outside the European Union”?
Is it really necessary to spend €24 million on bee-keeping, and to spend half a million euros on “aid for silkworms”? Speaking of which, what possible justification is there for Lord Mandelson to continue to pocket £8,600 per month, via the Commission, for a golden goodbye as we freeze public sector pay at home?
As the Business Secretary told MEPs last month,
“no one can understand why the European budget is not being subjected to the same discipline”
as national budgets. Nothing is more likely to erode further the confidence of the British public in a Brussels clique that is woefully out of touch.
As we make cuts at home, the UK taxpayer will contribute £7.7 billion to the EU budget this year, and by the end of the current Parliament that figure is expected to rise to £9.5 billion. As its own budget defies economic gravity, the Commission, unabashed, presses for greater control of national budgets. Will the Minister reassure the House that she will reverse those skewed priorities, and will fight both to rein in excessive EU spending and to safeguard national scrutiny of our own budgetary process?
Above all, this budget demonstrates, line by line, how important it is for Britain to retain its rebate. As of December 2009, the rebate has saved the British taxpayer £65 billion since 1984. Can the Minister give us a categorical guarantee that we will never repeat the supine sell-out of 2005?
Having listened carefully to the debate, I cannot help feeling that the most compelling arguments remain those advanced by the Government when they joined Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden in voting against this wretched budget in August.
I will be as brief as possible. I just wanted to note the following numbers. The total managed expenditure in the United Kingdom Budget will be £697 billion in 2010-11 rising to £700 billion in 2011-12. That is an increase of just 0.5%, whereas the European Union is really gunning for it with a 5.8% increase and, as we have heard, administration costs will rise by 4.4%.
It is worth noting what the Commission has to say about the administration costs. It says it has made particular efforts to limit its administrative expenditure and that rise is partially due to the higher than expected salary increases in 2009. So we in the UK are implementing austerity and limiting the pay rises for our public sector workers while the EU just carries on serenely as though nothing has happened. An increase of €380 million is entirely unacceptable.
We have heard about the total number of doctors, nurses and others who will be affected in the current circumstances, but let us look at the constituency numbers: nine doctors per constituency, 19 nurses, 23 policemen and 34 troops. That is the scale of the situation we are facing. The EU budget is therefore a ferocious and astonishing waste of money. It is entirely unacceptable that over a five-year period we in the UK are having a 10% rise in spending, but there will be a 60% rise for the EU. What do we as a nation get for that? Do we get any value at all?
Finally, I want to congratulate the Economic Secretary on making the strongest and most impassioned case on Europe from the Dispatch Box that any of us has seen in the past 20 years, setting out that the Government will take the EU to task and bang the table and make the points that need to be made. I hope I speak for the whole House when I say that in negotiating on this matter she has our strongest and best wishes. All Members on the Government Benches certainly want her to get the best deal for Britain.
Conservative Members clearly have a very simple message for the Minister: we wish her well and we wish her to be strong and fierce in argument and debate, because we think she should be more ambitious. It is not enough just to freeze this budget; this budget has to be brought down. If there is any budget of all the budgets we look at in this difficult time about which we can say, “We can get away with cutting that,” it is this budget. I suspect many Opposition Members would agree with that, were they honest about it. We are talking about a budget of €143 billion or £120 billion, which is more than we spend on the national health service. A big chunk of that budget is down to us, and we get nothing like the value out of it that we get from the NHS.
I therefore hope the Minister will look to the following very important precedent. The last time we had a good battling female Minister who stood up for Britain she was armed only with a handbag, yet with that one piece of equipment she came back with the biggest rebate we ever got: the rebate the Labour party stupidly gave away, and the rebate we need back. That rebate would give us twice as much money as the amount the Government are hoping to save from the cut in child benefit. We know the Minister has the right equipment. She assures me that she has an excellent handbag, so we wish her every success in putting that argument.
The argument to the Greeks, Italians and Portuguese must be that they are having to make far worse cuts than any that are suggested for the European budget. We can cut collectively in a much more sensible way than the damaging domestic cuts they are having to put to their electors. The French have already had riots on the streets over their domestic cuts. I am sure they will agree with our Minister that there are some easy pickings to be had by removing items from this European budget. I therefore also hope the Minister will point out that because this is a levy on all the member states and all the member states are borrowing too much money, every penny and cent of that €143 billion is going to be borrowed. The taxpayers will not just have to pay once, therefore; they will also have to pay all the interest on that and be ready to repay the debt.
Is this really the kind of thing we want to be borrowing money for? Of course it is not. So Godspeed to you Minister: put the case, and win over all those other Governments. They will surely agree with us that it is better to cut the European budget than to cut important domestic programmes.
I shall be brief. It is difficult to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), but I just wanted to say what a change it is to be in the House discussing a European issue when all on the Government side are united. New Back Bencher after new Back Bencher has said to the Minister, “We support what you say; go a little bit further.” We have heard the Minister accept an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I say to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) that he has tabled a lot of amendments but I cannot remember his Government ever accepting any of them. The Minister was also kind enough to say that had amendment (b) been worded slightly differently, she would have accepted that too.
The coalition Government are united, but I want to give a little help to the Minister by suggesting that if amendment (b) is passed, or if many Members vote for it, that will help her in the negotiation tomorrow. Just peeking over, I can see that she has got a very large handbag, so I ask her to use it tomorrow.
We have had a very interesting debate. Before it, I had thought there was a chance that perhaps the Conservative party had changed, and that it had learned the errors of its ways and said farewell to Eurosceptism. But no, Eurosceptism is alive and well in today’s Conservative party and, in fact, it would appear to have been given a new lease of life. In reality, many of the contributions made by Conservative Members today were speeches against not only the European Union budget per se, but the European Union as an entity.
I urge Conservative Members to continue to be frank, but I must ask where the Liberal Democrats were. Until recently, that party used to pride itself on being the most pro-European in Britain. Well, in this debate the Liberal Democrats have certainly withdrawn to the fringes, as we have seen them do this week generally. Apparently, no compromise is too much for them, no U-turn too sharp and no sell-out too great. What is true in domestic politics is equally true on Europe.
What about the Conservatives? Let me make it clear that an efficient and effective EU budget is important for Britain. The majority of our exports go to the rest of Europe and that is why the EU budget must act as a stimulus for growth. We need to reinforce the conditions for future growth and, as is said in the commentary on the draft budget, we must invest
“in research, development, and innovation, infrastructure and human capital”
because all of those
“are at the heart of economic modernisation”.
That is not to say, however, that we should not be hard-headed about what areas of EU expenditure should be reduced. It is right that there should be a freeze on EU staff recruitment in Brussels and that various benefits for current and retired EU officials should be reduced. There is a necessity to maintain budgetary discipline, and we must always ensure that there is value for money at a European level. Equally, we should be prepared to say that further savings should be made. Let Britain champion, for example, the ending of the ludicrous circus of the European Parliament travelling back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg—the Government say a lot about it but have done absolutely nothing. Let us examine whether it is really necessary for the EU to promote culture and let us continually make the case for reducing subsidies to well-off farming interests.
Of course Labour Members support the Government’s aim of reducing the EU budget, but the reality is that the amended budget, agreed by the Council of Ministers in August, represents an increase of 2.9% compared with this year’s budget. We know that the UK Government, along with smaller Governments from across the EU, voted against the amended budget. But, we know that the Government lost the debate and the vote in the full European Council—so much for the Government's claim to be winning the arguments in Brussels.
Even though the Government initially mellowed their strident Eurosceptism, which the Conservative party displayed in opposition, their lame and half-hearted attempts to fight for British interests are falling far short of what is needed. The Conservatives’ decision to withdraw their MEPs from the mainstream European People’s party, along with their vacuous proposals for constitutional tinkering, debilitates Britain’s engagement in Europe.
What this country needs is a Government who fight hard for British interests, not through posturing but through purposeful co-operation around a positive agenda—an agenda that recognises that if Britain is to succeed in the modern world, it must be a Britain that is located firmly in the mainstream of international co-operation.
With the leave of the House, in the short time available I want to respond to the debate. First, may I express my gratitude to the many Members of this House who have expressed their support for what our Government are trying to do in tackling the remorseless rise in the EU budget? Hon. Members have played an essential role in scrutinising the budget and I thank them for their participation.
In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), whose amendment we support, for his reasoned and impassioned comments on the challenging process to cut the Commission’s 2011 budget proposals. Our stance is that we want a cut—a real-terms cut—and as my hon. Friend’s amendment also points out, although we have challenged the budget at a Council level, we now need to put pressure on the European Parliament, too. His amendment does just that.
For the reasons that my hon. Friend set out, we cannot support amendment (b), tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell). We need to maximise the chance that we have as a Government of achieving our blocking minority, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone so eloquently set out, and amendment (b) would not help me to achieve that objective for the Government. In fact, it would risk preventing me from doing so.
I must make some progress, because we have very little time left.
In the wake of the worst financial crisis in living memory, and with the events that subsequently unfolded, we have said today in this House that we believe—rightly—that there is no justification for an increase in the EU’s annual budget of nearly 6%. In fact, as we have heard, countries across Europe are taking steps to ensure fiscal consolidation, and there is a strong case for the EU to follow suit—I know that the House can tell that I am taking that case to Europe directly and making it to those countries. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) pointed out how they are taking difficult decisions, and I made that exact point in French to the French Finance Minister.
At a time when all our European neighbours are looking to rein in public expenditure, the EU should not be looking to carry on with business as usual. It cannot be a case of carrying on regardless. That is why we voted against the Council’s first reading, which went in the right direction but did not go far enough—a view seemingly shared by everybody in this House apart from those on the Opposition Front Bench. They let us down by losing part of the rebate in 2005 and now in 2010 they are letting us down again by failing to support our efforts as a Government and as a coalition of parties on behalf of the British taxpayer to get value for money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) asked how many MEPs will vote against this provision. I can reassure him that we are already talking to our partners in Europe and in our group—the European Conservatives and Reformists. I have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), my good friend, and he assures me that he spoke yesterday to the Whip in charge of that group and all that group will be voting against a rise in the European Parliament when it comes before them. I urge those on the Opposition Front Bench to join us in that and to confirm that their Socialist group will do that. If they want to help the British taxpayer, they can start lobbying their own group in the European Parliament in the way that we have already successfully done.
Finally, we have spoken a lot tonight about concerns over the effectiveness of the EU spend and how well it is accounted for. I share those concerns. In fact, the last Government never used their vote when they took a look at the European audit accounts. We plan to be ready to use our vote if we see accounts that fail to meet the standards that we think they should. If we see accounts that contain points made by the European auditors that we believe the Parliament is not taking on board, we will be ready to use our vote in future to challenge the Commission in a way that the last Government never were.
I want to thank Members again for their valuable contributions. It has been incredibly useful for me to have this debate, particularly on the day before I travel to Brussels to defend our national interests and to get the best possible deal for the taxpayer.
This year, member states have been taking unprecedented action to restore sustainability to their national finances, making tough choices today to deliver a better future tomorrow. That is the case that I shall be making to my colleagues across Europe in the days and weeks ahead. In these times of austerity, there is no justification for ineffective, wasteful expenditure and there is a real need to scrutinise every euro of spending to ensure that it delivers what is promised. The Opposition might not want to play a role in challenging the unacceptable Commission budget rise, but the Government and we on the Government Benches will. I commend the motion to the House.
Amendment proposed: (b), leave out from ‘the financial year 2011’ to end and add
‘is concerned at the above-inflation increase being made to Britain’s EU budget contribution; believes that, at a time when the Government is poised to make reductions in public spending elsewhere, it is wrong to increase that contribution; and calls on the Government to reduce Britain’s EU budget contribution’. —(Mr. Carswell.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Proceedings interrupted (Order, 12 October).
The Deputy Speaker put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that time.
Amendment made: (a), at end add
‘and calls on the Government to reject European Parliament proposals to increase the budget’.—[Mr Cash.]
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. SEC(2010) 473, Statement of Estimates of the European Commission for the financial year 2011; and supports the Government’s efforts to maintain the 2011 EU budget at the cash levels equivalent to the 2010 budget, while ensuring better value for money in EU expenditure; and calls on the Government to reject European Parliament proposals to increase the budget.
Order. May I ask Members to leave the Chamber, if that is what they wish to do, quietly and quickly so that the rest of the business of the House can continue?
Delegated Legislation (committees)
That the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (No. 2) (England) Order 2010 (S.I., 2010, No. 2134) and the Town and Country Planning (Compensation) (No. 3) (England) Regulations 2010 (S.I., 2010, No. 2135), be referred to a Delegated Legislation Committee.—(Stephen Crabb.)